Friday, 14 September 2007

Mar Del Plata

This week I was invited by Maria to accompany her on a trip to Mar Del Plata where she was to attend a conference. Travel in Argentina is either by plane or coach, depending on the distance. Here, a four hour non-stop coach journey was appropriate, and reasonable at 104 pesos return (17 pounds). The coach was luxurious, with fully reclining seats, twelve down and 18 upstairs, two drivers, bathroom, international video. curtains and snacks.

The city of Mar Del Plata is a city of two halves. City and port. They straddle the Mar Argentina with Cabo Corrientes forming a whalebone jaw dividing the two. The day of writing I have left Maria's borrowed rambling house in the leafy Los Troncas Playa Grande to walk to the port. The street names mirror those of Buenos Aires, but here the roads are lined with small stone villas with pretty gardens and clipped hedges. Elsewhere the city resembles an Austrian village, long tile-hung roofs over timber balconies. As I arrive at the port the yellow and orange fishing boats are leaving laden with empty nets. Men are shouting in Italian and Spanish, with first and second generation Italians manning the boats. They flock as if preparing for a race in the early morning light. My destination is not the port itself, but to meet the 800 residents of Escollera Sur. Before you see them, you can hear them. And before you hear them, you can smell them. Sea Lions. The two Gurada of the port nodded me through the fortified gates and onto the southern harbour wall. It extends for over 300 metres into the Atlantic, curving north to meet the northern sea wall, but encompassing a huge basin in the cup of the land mass.

And there, out along the headland are the sea lions. They have travelled miles to winter here. A huge colony of males, arriving and departing as I watch, to navigate the harbour to the open sea, squid and fish and mates. I am standing about two feet from the nearest sea lion. From time to time, one rears up to force its way onto the bank to gain prized places. The strong males, with necks the size of small cars, have the advantage as the mouths of others are unable to gain any purchase on their flesh. The young defer, and the weak bear deep wounds. Another starts to roar. It flails its stained fangs and breathes out the smell of death eaters! I linger, fascinated at the strength and ferocity of the animals, before resuming my journey to the end of the southern pier where now blue sky meets the green swell and a flock of penguinos dart through the water catching small silver fish when they leap from the water.

Back at the house I meet Martha and her daughter Beatrix. Martha comes with the house and has her own apartment upstairs in what I can only describe as a two storey colonial bungalow. But it is vast with at least four bedrooms spread down long wide corridors on the ground floor, most with en suite bathrooms, two huge living rooms and two kitchens. The house has been trapped by its current owners in the 1950's. although there is a colour television and VHS player. Elsewhere, the bathrooms display bygone dignity of deep green glazed tiles and the kitchen houses the oldest washing machine I have ever seen, complete with mangle. Time has largely forgotten the house, and its retainer Martha. She fusses over the house guests, gossiping with Maria about family and other important news. Beatrix appears and smiles, her smile mirroring her mother's as she explains how to close the blinds and which electric socket to use for what. As dusk approaches the doors are double locked and the roll blinds cranked down against intruders. Meanwhile Maria and I escape to taste Churros at Manols Cafe along the sea front.

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